Israel, March 12-24 2013

Hi folks.

There are a couple of really good blogs out there at the moment with much better photos than me from Israel this spring, so please check out http://joshrjones.blogspot.co.uk/ and http://nubijar.blogspot.co.il/ for some great images of this springs birds from Josh and Yoav. But while you’re here, you might as read on… 😉

I was lucky enough to be leading the recent Sunbird tour to Israel, and went out a few days early to scout a few new sites. My time spent in the Nizzana area proved very fruitful, and then on the tour itself we managed to see some cracking birds. Hope you like the photos, some of which are more atmospheric than anything!

Pallid-Harrier-1
Pallid-Harrier-2A lovely male Pallid Harrier was the first bird I saw on my first morning in Israel. I didn’t see another in 2 weeks, but did manage to see 2 Hen Harriers. Go figure

Crowned-SandgrouseA flock of 9 Crowned Sandgrouse flew over Ezuz heading for Sinai. I also had a few hundred Pin-tailed Sandgrouse and a couple of Spotted Sandgrouse here, just none when the group arrived! The classic case of “you should have been here yesterday!!”

White-storks-4 White-storks-3 White-storks-1 White-storks-2A distant cloud over Sinai turned into a large flock of White Storks, rising up out of the desert, before heading north low over me and providing a proper migration spectacle.

Macqueen's-Bustard-3

There’s a bustard in here somewhere..

Macqueen's-Bustard-2Ahah!

Macqueen's-Bustard

And eventually it showed quite well. This Macqueen’s Bustard is one of several in the area, and are probably the most well watched Macqueen’s in the World.

Short-toed-Eagle

A feature of the first few days were the numbers of Short-toed Eagles going north. I’ve never seen flocks of this species before, but there were almost enough in one view to be called a flock at one point.

Cattle-egret

Cattle Egret. Lets hope he doesn’t find any blood-sucking ticks down there!

Arabian-Babbler

Arabian Babblers are a great species to spend some time watching. They bounce around in family parties and provide great entertainment.

Brown-necked-Raven

I’ve never understood the difficulty in identifying Brown-necked Ravens. The brown neck is not always as obvious as it is here, but the thin wings and distinctly angled down head and bill in flight always draw attention. Plus they often seem to hold their bills slightly open, as if they’re regretting their decision to live in the desert and are panting in the heat! This one actually has a broken bill tip.

Pale-Rock-Sparrow-2 Pale-Rock-Sparrow-4

A major invasion of Pale Rock Sparrows was underway in southern Israel. We had about 3 singing males with no effort near Nizzana, then another 2 singing males in the hills NE of Jerusalem. They’re one of those birds that are just better in flight, with those white tail tips and their unusual bee-eater like flight call. I had flocks flying north over Ezuz, so guess that the invasion is still underway.

White-tailed-Plover

White-tailed Plover at km20 pools. This was the wader highlight of the trip for us, and showed better than this crappy shot suggests.

Sand-Partridge-2

Sand Partridge. Pretty common in the wadis around Eilat,

Steppe-Eagle

Interesting eagle. The pale chin and remnants of a pale underwing covert bar point to Steppe Eagle, but there seems to be a lack of/very faint bars on the primaries and I can’t see a dark trailing edge forming either, but this could be age related.

Scrub-Warbler-1Scrub Warbler. Small and spunky!

Little-Green-Bee-eaterLittle Green Bee-eater. I really like the isolated splash of colour that the bee-eater gives in this image.

Nubian-Nightjar-4Nubian Nightjar. The joint headline act of our nocturnal excursion to the southern Dead Sea area, with this nightjar performing admirably for us at Neot Hakikkar. This is the highly localised and Arava Valley endemic race of tamaricis, that if split as a new species will immediately become one of the World’s rarest and most threatened birds. My advice would be to go and see it soon! The Hume’s Owls also performed very well, and we saw a pair interacting that gave excellent scope views in the torchlight. Unfortunately my pictures just show a dark grainy blob that might also be a small, distant monkey, so I have elected to link to Yoav’s blog again http://nubijar.blogspot.co.il/search/label/Hume%27s%20Owl . Because of the strict restrictions in place for entering Israeli nature reserves at night (ie, you are not allowed, with fines and subsequently being ostracized from birding in place for those stupid enough to attempt to break the rules), the only way to see Hume’s Owl in Israel is as part of an organised tour with one of the lads from the Israel Ornithological Centre. The only time of year they do it is to coincide with the Eilat festival. So if you want to see these two Western Palearctic megas, then you simply have to go then. And if anyone says they can do it by wandering off into the desert with a torch, they can’t. And its illegal. Israel is not a country to start doing illegal stuff in!

Collared-Pratincole

Collared Pratincole, showed rather well!

Desert-Lark-2

Desert Lark

Common-Redstart-female

Common Redstart. This female is rather grey and is presumably of the race samamisicus.


Black-&-white-storksBlack Storks migrating past Mt Yorash. A tiny part of the 260 that flew past us in an hour, and with a White Stork tagging along.

Black-Stork-&-Steppe-Buzzards

Black Stork with 3 Steppe Buzzards.

Black-KitesBlack Kites

cropped-desert-wheatear-1.jpg

Desert Wheatear

BlackstartBlackstart. Its got a black start.

Mountain-Gazelle

Mountain Gazelle. A very range restricted species, with populations in and immediately around Israel.

Hula-Valley

The Hula Valley. Jungle Cat stalked just out of shot to the left!

Cranes Cranes-2 Cranes-and-Short-toed-Eagle

Common Cranes over the Hula Valley. A magical sight as they come into roost.

Griffon-VultureGriffon Vulture

Egyptian-Vulture-4 Egyptian-Vulture-3Egyptian Vulture. Really close flyby’s at Gamla.

White Storks piling back into the Hula Valley

For next years Sunbird trip, keep an eye on http://sunbirdtours.co.uk/

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St Agnes, Isles of Scilly Oct 2012

Again, this is a catch up post from last year. After a hiatus of too many years, I got myself down to the Isles of Scilly last autumn. I’d always said that if I went back, I’d want to stay on St Agnes, so when Ken Shaw offered me a bed at his place I jumped at the chance. There was even space for my old Finnish friend Janne Aalto and his mate Oriel Clarabuch from Catalonia. A pretty international team! The weather forecast looked amazing in the preceeding few days, with a fast moving air stream coming straight to Scilly from the good ol’ USA. A Solitary Sandpiper on St Mary’s and a Blackpoll Warbler on Bryher were only a taste of things to come…

Except they weren’t. We dipped the Solitary and the Blackpoll (twice!), but had a great time on St Agnes over the week. Nothing absolutely outstanding, but I got a find tick in the pallid form a Booted Warbler, and we had some good birding.

Cove-Vean-from-Gugh

St Agnes, as viewed from Gugh.

Richard's-Pipit-(1)

Richard’s Pipit.

Coal-Tit-(4)

Coal Tit. Up to about 24 were on the island, and this was the outstounding ornithological event of the autumn on St Agnes. They were an Aggie tick for many birders who’d been going there years!

Car-&-lichen

Local transport links were an issue at times.

Booted Wblr, Cove Vean, St Agnes, 20 Oct 2012 (4) Booted Wblr, Cove Vean, St Agnes, 20 Oct 2012 (5) Booted Wblr, Cove Vean, St Agnes, 20 Oct 2012 (6)

Booted Warbler. The highlight of my autumn I think, as find ticks are hard to come by nowadays. Really good to compare this to the Sykes’s Warbler we had on Foula in September, and the differences should be obvious…

Booted-Warbler-twitchers-(1

Booted Warbler twitchers. A nice small group of Aggie birders.

Booted-Warbler-twitchers-(2

Then the masses from St Mary’s arrived!

Rose-coloured-Starling-(2)

Rose-coloured Starling. I’d been looking for this all morning after failing to be the one to find it. Then I sat down for some lunch in the cafe and it flew in right next to me!

Marsh-Wblr-(2)

Marsh Warbler. Always nice, and rounded off my acro autumn quite nicely.

Greenshank-(3)

Greenshank on Lower Moors, while dipping Solitary Sandpiper.

Common-Snipe-(grey-looking-

Two rather grey-looking Common Snipe. (Un)fortunately, they lifted their wings to reveal perfectly standard Common Snipe patterning.

It was great to be able to properly work St Agnes, and I’ll certainly be going back in 2013. Hopefully we can recreate the glory years of Aggie then…?

Georgia, April 2012 – the high Caucasus.

Yes, I know this is a tad late, but I’m doing preparation for my next trip to Georgia at the moment and I suddenly realised that I hadn’t done a blog post on last years trip! I’ll not write reams on it, suffice to say that it was a very successful trip that scored all of the endemics and more. Unfortunately, I seemed to fail to get decent pictures of most things, but I’ll upload a few of the less bad ones. Scenery 7 Scenery-2 Scenery-6 Scenery-3

Four images showing the entrance to the Kazbegi valley area, then going into the valley. Truly spectacular scenery. The final shot shows some of the Buckthorn that covers large areas of the valley bottom and lower slopes. The Buckthorn is great for migrants and Guldenstadt’s Redstart.

Guldenstadt's-Redstart-2 Guldenstadt's-Redstart-1

Guldenstadt’s Redstart. One of the most stunning birds in the Western Palearctic. On our first day we saw up to 15 of them in the roadside buckthorn, then followed that up with regular sightings thereafter. By visiting in late April, the snow should still be extensive at higher altitudes, forcing the redstarts lower, and so it proved for us. Many birders go in the summer when they are breeding at very high altitudes and demand a potentially gruelling hike to find just one or two.  Unfortunately for me, every time I tried to digiscope the close showy ones, they buggered off!

Caucasian Black Grouse. Two males sizing each other up. We had good views of several males and a couple of females just outside where we were staying. Lekking behaviour was also seen. Again, those that go later in the season can really struggle to connect with this iconic species as they disappear into the rapidly lengthening grasses and low shrubs.

Caucasian Snowcock. Currently the only true endemic to the Caucasus range, views are always a bit distant but perfectly acceptable through the scope. After a bit of a worrisome first afternoon when we heard and saw nothing, we then found 5-6 on the slopes behind our hotel.

Caucasian-Chiffchaff

Caucasian Chiffchaff. Call is surprisingly different from Common Chiffchaff.

Caucasian Great Rosfinch 1

Caucasian Great Rosefinch. A pr flew in and landed within 20 meters of us. Stunning views of what may prove to be another endemic of these mountains. At the moment, its considered to be part of the Eastern Great Rosefinch, but its isolated from that by several 1000km. Don’t think there is much chance of them meeting either…!!

Lammegier

Lammegier. An adult, and a species we saw multiple times every day. This must be the best location in the Western Palearctic for them, especially considering the views that you can get.

Wallcreeper-3 Wallcreeper-1 Wallcreeper-4 Wallcreeper-2

Wallcreeper. We found 5 birds in the valley, including one on the roadside from the van! Again, this is a fantastic place to see this charismatic species. The top bird was in a dry river bed and was nesting in a low cliff next to the track. The bottom image shows how good the camouflage of Wallcreeper is. They can be incredibly hard to find, and its only the constant wing flicking that makes them stand out.

Red-fronted-Serin

Red-fronted Serin. A very bad shot of what is a common bird up there.

Twite

Twite. The local race is a lot paler, with some interesting dark speckling on the chest. Still has a lovely pink rump though. Pretty common here too.

Black Redstart 2.1 Black Redstart 1

Black Redstarts. These are of the race ohruros, and are something of an intermediate between eastern and western populations. The amount of red on the belly of birds around Kazbegi is variable, although obviously trying to decide which are local breeders and which are migrants is impossible in a short visit. Note the white wing flash on the lower bird, which is absent on eastern birds and should be absent on ohruros too. Some birds here had much less red, and were pretty much identical to gibraltarensis, just without the white wing flash. An interesting species!

Gravestones around Kazbegi (1)

Local headstones carry an amazingly accurate image of the deceased. Its actually fascinating to see, and the artwork is amazing.

Yellow-Wagtail-thunbergi-3

Yellow-Wagtail-beema-or-fla

Migrants pass through in large numbers, depending on the weather. We were unlucky last year, but still managed to see a few Yellow Wagtails of three races (thunbergi and beema above – there were also several feldegg),  plus Red-breasted Flycatcher, a brief Semi-collared Flycatcher, Green Warbler and Red-throated Pipits.

Black-KiteRaptors were passing through in good numbers. As we first approached the Kazbegi area and went over the high pass, I looked up to see long lines of raptors moving through at high altitude. Steppe Buzzards, Montagu’s Harriers, Steppe Eagle, Black Kites, Booted Eagle, a Pallid Harrier and more all piled through. Truly amazing, and I failed to get any usable shots of it! Some of the Black Kites came lower and like the one above, showed features of lineatus (“Black-eared” Kite) of Central and East Asia. The white primary window could do with being bigger, but its part the way there. Intergrades??

Long-tailed-Tit

Heading back to Tbilisi, we stopped off to try and see some woodland birds in the huge and impressive beech woodlands that cover the foothills of the Caucasus. The only thing i managed to photograph was this Long-tailed Tit! Note the white head of this bird, which should be of the dark headed Turkish/Caucasian race.

Hoopoe

Hoopoe.

Menetries-Warbler-2 Menetries-Warbler

We then moved into the steppe-like area of Chachuna for a complete change in habitat. Lots of dry country species here, and our species count of raptors on our first day there was incredible. Eagles, harriers, buzzards, kites, falcons and more all moved north on a broad front. Once at Chachuna, we realised that Menetries Warbler was pretty common and with patience gave good views.

Eastern-Imperial-Eagle

Eastern Imperial Eagle. A pr were nesting close to where we stay.

Osprey

Osprey. Another migrant raptor heading low north after stopping to fish in the reservoir at Chachuna.

Lesser-Spotted-Eagle-and-Mo

Montagu’s Harrier attacking Lesser Spotted Eagle. These two species were breeding close to each other. Too close for comfort for the male Monty’s!

Georgia is a great place, the birding is excellent with some real Western Palearctic (and even a couple of Global) specialities, and the people are incredibly friendly. The Caucasus certainly deserve more attention on the birding scene, so I intend to spend a bit of time exploring over there over the coming few years. Just look at a map of the area and start to drool over what could be moving through on migration.

I’ll be leading a Sunbird tour out there in late April, and there are still a couple of places left. See http://www.sunbirdtours.co.uk/tours/georgia-high-caucasus/  for details.